During Gov. Ralph Northam’s visit to Virginia Tech this week, he stressed the need to invest in agriculture, technology, tourism, and healthcare among other things, in order to help the commonwealth’s rural communities thrive, but he said that that underpinning all these issues is the need to provide jobs and build a strong workforce.

“Where the rubber meets the road is workforce development,” Northam said. He was in Blacksburg as part of the two-day Governor’s Summit on Rural Prosperity that stressed innovative partnerships. Northam recalled his own childhood growing up on a farm on the Eastern Shore and the need to create and keep jobs in communities like his hometown.

The summit was put on by the Virginia Rural Center, which is a collaborative partnership of the Center for Rural Virginia and the Council for Rural Virginia, which work together on a joint mission to work with policymakers and stakeholders to create innovative solutions and expand entrepreneurial opportunities to ensure economic prosperity for all regions in the commonwealth. Panel discussions addressed issues ranging from broadband access to community revitalization.

Alan Grant, dean of the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, was part of a panel that discussed how technological changes are helping agriculture — the state’s largest private economic sector — remain a driver of rural economies.

Grant said the university’s new program —  the Virginia Research and Extension Innovation Initiative — can be key to growing jobs in rural areas. Part of this initiative is the SmartFarm Innovation Network, a decentralized hub of interconnected centers around the commonwealth that will develop and deploy new technologies that will increase the productivity and efficiency of agriculture. During demonstrations highlighting some of the projects that are part of the SmartFarm Innovation Network, researchers showed off drones that detect airborne plant pathogens and tractors that use precision agricultural techniques to improve production practices and boost yields.

“We can use this network as a platform for innovation and education for a future workforce,” Grant said. “Our investments, along with those of public-private partnerships, can help rural communities thrive.”